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Part III: The Off-The-Beaten-Track Ones

OBERNDORF

Where? In Stille-Nacht-Platz

What? About 20 stalls in small clusters around the square

Glühwein? Very good; the cup is one to keep: a picture of the chapel and “Stille-Nacht” emblazoned.

Food? Untested; baked potatoes, leberkäse semmel, sausages

Anything special? The constant background humming of Silent Night (that could have been me)

Oberndorf is worth a visit at any time of year to discover the place where Silent Night was first performed. The new museum is very interesting, not just for learning about the carol but also for information on the village’s salt-barge history and how the village was split from Laufen by the new border between Austria and Bavaria in 1816. 

The market itself risks being a theme market filled intermittently with tour bus gangs. Yet as dusk falls and the lights start to twinkle, it’s hard not to be drawn into the magic and imagine those first guitar chords being played out into snowy streets. 

There is a smaller market in Laufen on the other side of the River Salzach which unfortunately was closed when I visited. It was about 20 stalls and a little stage in a light-adorned park. Laufen itself is worth a potter around because of the well-preserved townhouses and the imposing Stiftskirche Mariä Himmelfahrt from the once-joint villages’ heyday. It certainly reinforces how valuable salt was and the riches that were made on the trade. 

TITTMONING

Where? In the German village Tittmoning about 30 km north of Salzburg. The village was owned by St Peter’s Monastery in Salzburg and the castle was built by the ruling Prince-Archbishops as protection against Bavarian expansion. 

What? The Barbaramarkt is only present for one weekend in early December.

Glühwein? My guest researcher reports it being tasty. A first taste of Kinderpunsch for me as driver: spiced, non-offensive cordial. 

Food? A slab of freshly grilled pork in a semmel from a local charity’s stall. They also had some fascinating pastries shaped like huge rose blossoms covered in rose water which were unfortunately all sold out. Other stalls offered bosna, crepes and flammkuchen in the main market with hidden options including our pork semmel, deer goulash and langos (Hungarian fried bread) were well worth it and away from the crowds. 

Anything special? The whole experience feels special as you peer into villagers’ cleaned garages to inspect homemade gifts or pop into their living rooms to send a letter to the Christkind. The man setting himself up with a keyboard in a garage and calling himself the Human Jukebox was genius.  

The setting itself is again wonderful: a medieval village inside huge city walls leading you through to classic wooden huts around the church of St Lawrence then climbing the backstreets to the castle above to gaze out at the distant Alps. There’s all sorts of surprises along the way: an Adventweg telling you about various saints and the story of Christmas, a roaming choir of singing schoolchildren angels, the lantern labyrinth by the castle, floating candles in the stream and a little part of the market set up beside the Seniorheim so everyone can enjoy the atmosphere. 

It felt more genuine than a lot of places with more stalls offering things that were obviously made by their owners. The lovely lady at the baby clothing stall was visibly excited to hear the blanket I purchased would be making it all the way to New Zealand.

ST JOHANN IM PONGAU

Where? In the large square in the centre of town; around 40 minutes’ drive south of Salzburg 

What? About 20-30 stalls in the square along with a children’s train ride, a small petting zoo of goats and useful free public toilets 

Hot chestnut treats

Glühwein? Yes, nice enough mugs for one of my guest researcher to keep his. The Kinderpunsch still disappointing but one patron assured me that they also had non-alcoholic schnapps. I don’t believe this…  

Food? Hot chestnuts were welcome for the guest researchers, some limited stalls of sausages and speck open-sandwiches.

Anything special? Infra-red heaters with sheep-skin covered benches beside, perfect! 

This market was more suited as an alternative après-ski drinking venue than as a place to pick up some Christmas gifts. There were limited stalls and nothing stays in mind as to what they were selling. The big hit was, as mentioned, those heaters. They made the place for a lovely setting for a drink after a day on the slopes. The range of child-friendly activities was also a positive. In other markets, alcoholic drinks and a constant refrain of “don’t touch” are not an ideal day out for small people: this little market would keep them better entertained. 

KATSCHBERG 

Where? 125km/one and a half hours’ drive south of Salzburg at the ski resort of Katschberg

What? Slightly cheating, this isn’t a Christmas market but an Adventweg or Advent trail. It’s a 1km walk out of Katschberg town to Gasthof Bacher (there is a shuttle bus for 2.50EUR) before you start the 2.5km Wichtel Trail through the woods. For the Wichtel Trail, you can also take a horse-drawn sleigh (22EUR each). The final part is the Advent Trail, a round 2km trail with various sheds offering teddy bear making, sing-alongs and story-telling. 

Glühwein? Yes but not frequent. If you pay the full 10EUR entry charge, you get a free thermos mug that is filled at hot tea stands along the way. If you just pay 5EUR entry, you get no mug and they won’t fill your own at the tea stations. 

Food? More limited than I expected. There was Gasthof Bacher at the start of the Wichtel Trail, another guesthouse at the end before you enter the Advent Trail, and one guesthouse on the Advent Trail itself. I was expecting the usual small stands of hot chestnuts and sausages but these didn’t feature. 

Anything special? Yes but this isn’t about the markets, it is about the walk and the experience.

It’s important to set the expectations right for this one. This is not a market crammed with wooden decorations to buy. This is a magical walk through dusk and darkness semi-lit by lanterns. Bring a head torch, good hiking boots and hiking poles along with a sled if you have any children for when they get tired walking. You are surrounded by wood, mountains and the sounds of sleigh bells before you reach your end goal of the Advent Trail. My guest researchers were not German speakers so there was little for us on the Advent Trail itself and the sheds with closed doors were a bit intimidating to enter. However, it felt more like a true Christmas pilgrimage, focussing on the message and meaning of the season rather than on consumerism. If you want something away from tourists, hidden in the mountains, this one is for you. If you want those gifts and to stand around with glühwein, then maybe not. 

WOLFGANGSEE

Where? Around Wolfgangsee, a lake in the Salzkammergut (the Austrian Lake District) 35km east of Salzburg. Take a bus to St. Gilgen and get the boat from there. Try to stay until after dark: it looks lovely with the giant candle illuminated on the lake at St Wolfgang. 

What? There are three markets in different settlements around the lake: to the west end of the lake, St. Gilgen; in the middle, St Wolfgang; and at the east end, Strobl. They are open on different days so check this while planning your visit. The three are linked by boat criss-crossing the lake: check the schedules here

Glühwein? Many opportunities: we took ours at a hotel with sheepskin rugs overlooking the lake. 

Food? A great selection: I was delighted to find treats of Gröst’l (Tirolean dish of fried potatoes, meat and caraway seeds topped with a fried egg) and Käsespatzle (egg pasta and melted cheese with fried onion). 

Anything special? Those familiar with The White Horse Inn/Weissen Rössl operetta will know that this region was made famous in a way similar to The Sound of Music: the guesthouse is still open. 

Unfortunately, only the St Wolfgang market was open on the day we visited. Taking the bus and the boat is relatively expensive but the views on the water are wonderful. if I did it again, I would get off a stop early (the stop for the railway when it is running up Schafberg) and walk into town along the lake. Once in the village, you have many of the usual stalls but you also find a life-size Nativity scene featuring well-loved figures of the Newly Weds and the Fat Man, a petting zoo of alpacas, and many cute village shops selling everything from soaps to baby lederhosen to glacier herb gins. After seeing the stalls, we watched the sun go down behind the mountains. This place is certainly worth a visit: adding on the other two markets may take longer than one day though. 

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